A study gave cash and therapy to men at risk of criminal behavior. 10 years later, the results are in.

That is such a fantastic offer that it appears to be too good to be true. But Chris Blattman, Margaret Sheridan, Julian Jamison, and Sebastian Chaskel’s study backs it up. Their new research shows that providing at-risk males with a few weeks of behavioral counseling and a small sum of money lessens the likelihood of future crime and violence, even ten years after the intervention.

Blattman, a University of Chicago economist, had no intention of doing this research. In 2009, however, he was in Liberia with a friend called Johnson Borh, who toured him around the capital city of Monrovia. Borh brought Blattman to see pickpockets, drug dealers, and other people on the outside of society because he investigates crime and violence.

They kept bumping into guys sitting on street corners, eking out a life by polishing shoes or selling clothing. When these men saw Borh, they’d rush up to hug him. When Blattman questioned the guys how they knew Borh, they’d answer things like, “I used to be like them,” and gesture to pickpockets or drug dealers nearby. “However, after that, I went through Borh’s curriculum.”

That’s how Blattman found about the Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia initiative, which Borh had been doing for 15 years. It provided eight weeks of cognitive behavioral treatment to males at high risk of violent crime. Borh adopted CBT to deal with issues like violence and criminality. CBT is a common, evidence-based way of dealing with difficulties like anxiety.

A study gave cash and therapy to men at risk of criminal behavior. 10 years later, the results are in.

The guys would meet with a counselor in groups of roughly 20 to practice particular behavioral adjustments such as anger management and self-control. They’d also practice putting on a new persona that wasn’t linked to their previous conduct by altering their clothes and hairstyles and seeking to reintegrate themselves into society through community sports, banking, and other means.

Blattman wanted to do a formal study to see how beneficial such a program may be. He planned to conduct a large randomized controlled study with 999 of Monrovia’s most violent men, recruited on the street. The findings were so promising that a sister initiative in a completely different city, Chicago, has already been established.

The murder rate in Chicago is alarmingly high, yet police fail to solve 95% of all shootings. Finding a solution to avoid shootings and other violent crimes is a top issue not only in that city, but across the United States, as the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, have shown. We sorely need innovative answers to the problem of violence, given that direct interventions like gun removal are largely hindered by political opposition, and trying to crack down on crime after the fact entails the risk of policy brutality.

The combination of therapy and money proved to be a surprisingly beneficial one.

Four groups of 999 Liberian males were formed. CBT was given to some, while cash was given to others. Another group received both the CBT and the cash, and a control group received neither.

Both the therapy and therapy-plus-cash groups were exhibiting favorable improvements a month following the intervention. The favorable benefits on those who had treatment alone had faded a bit a year after the intervention, but those who received therapy plus cash continued to exhibit significant results: crime and violence were reduced by nearly 50%.

Blattman, on the other hand, did not dare to expect that the effect would last. Experts he consulted projected that the effects would gradually fade over time, as they do with many therapies.

So it came as a huge surprise when, ten years later, he hunted down and reevaluated the initial males from the research. Surprisingly, the therapy-plus-cash group saw a 50% reduction in crime and violence.

Over the course of ten years, Blattman believes that there were 338 fewer offenses per participant. Given that the program’s implementation cost just $530 per participant, that comes out to $1.50 every crime prevented.

In a nutshell, it was a huge success. But why did the CBT and cash combo work?

It is said that practice makes perfect.

According to Blattman, the most likely explanation is that the $200 in cash allowed the guys to pursue a few months of real commercial activities after the therapy concluded, such as shoe polishing. That meant they’d have a few more months to solidify their new non-criminal persona and behavioral modifications. Blattman explained, “Basically, it provided them time to rehearse.”

There are a handful of caveats: The study relied heavily on participants’ self-reported data about what actions they did and didn’t do, which might raise issues about experimenter pressure (where participants tell experimenters what they want to hear). In addition, 103 of the 999 men who had been enrolled for the research had died by the time the 10-year follow-up came around.

That may lead you to question if the more aggressive guys, who would have been more resistant to the program’s effects, were simply excluded from the reevaluation, making it appear as if violent crime had decreased more than it had.

There are, however, caveats to the caveats. For one thing, the researchers didn’t depend just on self-reported data; they also observed how individuals behaved in incentive games in which they were given the option of receiving $1 today or $5 next week, for example (a good example of self-control and future-oriented thinking). The study concludes, “Our therapy effects are robust and lasting in these outcomes.”

The authors identified the reason of death by questioning friends and family of each person who died. Only 26 violent fatalities were found. Even when they predicted what would happen to their results if “excellent” outcomes for missing control group members and “poor” outcomes for missing treatment group members were entered in, the favorable treatment impact for therapy-plus-cash mostly maintained.

Changing the way people think about crime

Chicago has been adopting a similar but more intense program called READI, which was inspired by the Liberian model. Over the course of 18 months, males in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods attend morning treatment sessions followed by afternoon job training. The argument behind the latter is that in a city like Chicago, where the labor market is well-developed, getting individuals into the market is arguably the greatest method to enhance incomes, but in Liberia, where the labor market is considerably less efficient, it made more sense to offer them cash.

“This summer, we’ll have more outcomes,” Blattman said of the READI initiative, which he is advising. “It doesn’t appear to be a slam dunk” thus far.

Despite this, Chicago is keen to test these therapy-based techniques, having had some success with them previously. Becoming a Man (BAM), a CBT-inspired group therapy program for high students, is also based in the city. During the BAM program, criminal arrests decreased by approximately half, according to a randomized controlled experiment. Despite the fact that the program’s benefits faded with time, it appears to be quite cost-effective.

But this isn’t simply a tale about how therapy is becoming more widely recognized as a tool for reducing crime. This practice is part of a larger push to take a more carrot-than-stick approach to crime.

“It all boils down to a progressive, sensible social control program.” In 2019, David Brotherton, a sociologist at the City University of New York, told me that “social inclusion is the most productive way of social control.”

Brotherton has long contended that current US policy is coercive and punishing, which is unproductive. His study has found that assisting at-risk individuals in reintegrating into mainstream society, including providing them with cash, is far more successful in lowering violence.

Brotherton’s research yielded the following startling example: Ecuador, a crime-ridden country, legalized the gangs that had been the cause of most of the violence in 2007. The country permitted gangs to rebrand themselves as cultural organizations that could register with the government, allowing them to apply for grants and participate in social programs.